Tuesday, March 24, 2015

How Will the Yankees Handle the Closer Role?

On Monday, Bryan Hoch wrote that the Yankees might enter the regular season without officially naming a closer. Both Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller seem up to the task, but manager Joe Girardi said there's no rush to anoint one pitcher or the other as the designated ninth-inning guy. As someone who's railed against the team's rigid use of its closer in the past, I applaud the Yankees' wait-and-see approach. Because having the option to bring in either man (or both men) at the end of games should be one of the team's biggest strengths.

The other day on Grantland, Michael Baumann wrote about teammates around the league whose skills complement each other so well that he wishes he could combine each pair into a single super-player. Among the five sets of teammates he looked at, Baumann chose two Yankees: Andrew Bailey and Nathan Eovaldi. That hybrid certainly makes sense, as Bailey's swing-and-miss secondary stuff would go well with Eovaldi's blazing fastball and durability. Bailey and Eovaldi go together like lamb and tunafish.

Baumann might have omitted an even more useful pairing of Yankees pitchers, though. I'm talking about Deldrew Millances. Betances and Miller are massive power pitchers who posted the best two xFIP marks of all hurlers who threw at least 60 innings last season. (Yes, even better than the Royals' much-ballyhooed trio.) Both men work the bottom of the strike zone with extreme prejudice and induce unfair amounts of strikeouts and grounders.

Photos via nypost.com and nj.com

However, some of the pitchers' skills and styles also diverge considerably. The obvious difference is that Betances is a righty while Miller is a lefty. Both pitchers throw a four-seam fastball, but Betances' heater comes in a few miles per hour faster.* Meanwhile, Miller's primary breaking pitch is a slider, whereas Betances possesses a freakish curveball. There are clear similarities between the two relievers, from their height to their heaters, but they also provide noticeably different weapons for Girardi to deploy.

*Betances' heater comes in harder than almost any fastball in the league, so that's no knock on Miller.

Imagine using Betances to face Mookie Betts and Dustin Pedroia in the eighth inning then having Miller work the ninth against David Ortiz and Pablo Sandoval. Or maybe Betances would be used to face the Blue Jays' righty mashers whenever they were scheduled to bat in the late innings. The term closer-by-committee usually implies that a team doesn't have a true shutdown guy so it must take a game-by-game approach. The Yankees have two worthy closers, and platoon advantages alone would make it sensible for Girardi to use a closer-by-committee this season.

Even though it would make sense to use Betances and Miller as an unpredictable two-headed, ninth-inning monster, I doubt it will be truly realized. Here are three potential roadblocks to a season of Deldrew Millances:

Lemming Managers
Last year, Jonah Keri found that even managers like Joe Maddon, who we consider innovative, stick to pretty rigid closer usage. Since Girardi became the Yanks' manager, he's had the luxury of handing the ball to the greatest closer ever then to one of the top relievers in the game. He's never had to face a closer controversy, and until he weathers one, I don't trust that he'll easily free himself from the tyranny of conventional wisdom. If one reliever is outperforming the other by the end of April, look for Girardi to use that small sample to justify naming a full-time closer. (Prove me wrong, Joe!)

Managers are fond of saying that you can never have too much pitching, and with damn good reason. Girardi's job will be easy if one of these guys hits the disabled list for a little while. I already said that I'd turn into Patrick Bateman if Betances gets injured. Well, if Miller gets injured, I'll turn into the moderately more peaceful Anton Chigurh. And if neither pitcher gets hurt but Girardi still refuses to stick with this closer-by-committee, I'll turn into a slightly-more-annoyed version of myself.

The Media and Fans
Ah, the ever-present "playing in New York" factor. Seriously, if either Betances or Miller blows a few saves in the first month of the season, it might be better for everyone's sanity if Girardi names the other guy the full-time closer. I don't want to read early-season Post headlines like "IT'S MILLER TIME: Betances struggling in closer role." I still swear that the New York media's treatment of Joba Chamberlain during the weird "Joba Rules" season contributed to Chamberlain failing to realize his full potential. I don't want to see the same thing happen with Betances (or Miller, for that matter).

Those three factors or any number of other variables could ruin the plan for a dynamic closer-by-committee. Still, I hope Girardi gives it a fair chance (Read: until June). Betances and Miller have a chance to treat New York to change-of-pace teammates on the level of "Thunder and Lightning", Bradshaw and Jacobs, and Frazier and Monroe. Bring on Deldrew Millances!

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Follow FranT on Twitter at @frantweet and follow Brian Kavanaugh at @btkav

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